Six years ago, MoMA mounted its striking and unconventional show “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925” which opened with the unconventional choice of four works by Marsden Hartley from his Berlin series. The whole of the series was assembled two years later at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin for a show that Roberta Smith described as confirming Hartley’s world-class status:
Before Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock, there was Marsden Hartley, America’s first great modern painter of the 20th century. He achieved this distinction in Paris and most of all in Berlin between early 1912 and late 1915. There he produced a stream of paintings that synthesized Cubism and other European modernisms, mixed in non-Western motifs and mysterious symbols and culminated in his lusty, elegiac German Officer paintings
One of the missed opportunities of this season’s estates was the Berlin, No. 49 painting owned by Barney Ebsworth that was donated to the Seattle Art Museum as consolation for the estate’s decision to sell Ebsworth’s legendary American art collection. Any collector gnashing their teeth at missing out on one of the rare Berlin works still in private hands will rejoice this morning to learn that Sotheby’s has Ed and Deborah Shein’s Pre-War Pageant (1913-15) which was shown at Washington, DC’s National Gallery in 2010. There’s talk of one of these works trading on the private market for $20m or more. That might explain the $30m estimate. The rarity of the work, with Ebsworth’s example going to a museum precious few are left in private hands, also commands such a strong price. Here’s Sotheby’s release on the work which will sell in New York on November 12th:
Sotheby’s is pleased to announce today that Marsden Hartley’s triumphant Pre-War Pageant will be among the highlights of this group offered during the November Evening Sale, when it is estimated to sell in the region of $30 million.
Pre-War Pageant stands as a seminal painting in the development of Modern art, and represents one of the first examples of an American artist working in a purely abstract idiom. The canvas hails from a groundbreaking group of paintings that Hartley produced in Berlin between 1913 and 1915 – the majority of which reside in museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Coming to auction this November from the collection of Ed and Deborah Shein, this magnificent painting headlined an exhibition of American Modernist works from their collection at the National Gallery of Art in 2010.
Liz Sterling, Senior Vice President and Senior Specialist in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Department, said: “It is a privilege to present Pre-War Pageant, which represents an extraordinary achievement in Modern painting. The works that Hartley produced in Berlin from 1913–15 are boldly radical and widely considered to be the most important in the development of Modern art in America. Pre-War Pageant is a true masterpiece within this series, and one of the few examples left in private hands. There have been numerous testaments to Hartley’s genius in recent years – most notably in the acclaimed show of his Berlin pictures at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2014–15. Pre-War Pageant has not been shown publicly since that time, and we look forward to presenting this exceptional painting to collectors worldwide in November.”
Sotheby’s will exhibit this enrapturing and dynamic work around the world this fall, including in Frankfurt, London and Los Angeles, before returning to our New York headquarters for the exhibition of our full Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art auctions beginning 2 November. Pre-War Pageant radically melds diverse influences – Cubism, German Expressionism (a nod to Hartley’s personal relationships with both Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky), Native American Art and Mysticism, among others – into a bold and inimitable composition that captures the tenor of Berlin and Hartley’s emotional response to the city that he loved. It is a brilliant visual documentation of the energy and underlying tension there, as well as the personal liberation that Hartley felt in the thriving metropolis in the year before the outbreak of the War. Hartley wrote to Gertrude Stein in 1913, the year he painted Pre-War Pageant, that his paintings “express a fresh consciousness of what I see + feel around me – taken directly out of life + from no theorist formulas as prevails so much today.”
Pre-War Pageant presages the development of Modern art in America, and Hartley’s lauded Berlin pictures are recognized today as some of the earliest works by an American artist in a purely abstract idiom. Rendered in bold colors and muscular brushwork, the diverse iconography in the present work includes: a tee pee form at center, alluding to Native American culture; portions of various flags that are a reference to the Prussian military culture and pageantry that defined Berlin at the time, as well as a nod to Cubist influences; a series of 8-pointed stars, which appear in a number of Hartley’s Berlin pictures and reference the stars on the officers uniforms as well as act as a mystical symbol; and the target, which the artist saw as a universal symbol, much as Jaspar Johns would more than 40 years later. This richly-complex work also references a number of dualities, including allusions to day and night, heaven and earth, and a myriad of others. Hartley painted the present work during a particularly amorous period in his life. The artist had fallen in love with Karl von Freyburg of the Prussian guard, who was tragically killed in the war in 1914. This inspired Hartley to produce his most widely-known painting, Portrait of a German Officer, which currently resides in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pre-War Pageant retains its original artist-painted frame, imparting a dynamic sculptural presence and sense of the composition emanating beyond the picture plane, exploding in space. Indeed, when she first saw Pre-War Pageant and other works from the series exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291 in 1914, Georgia O’Keeffe remembered thinking they were like “a brass band in a little closet.” The impact of Hartley’s Berlin pictures on the subsequent generations cannot be overstated, including inspiring Robert Indiana to create his Hartley Elegies series.